Q&A: The story behind the ‘golden voice’

On a chilly day in December, a videographer pulled out his Flip video camera and spoke with a homeless man on the roadside who carried a small cardboard sign with the words, “God given gift of voice.” Thus the first feel-good story for 2011 unfolded as Ted Williams spoke a few words into the camera with his “golden voice,” a smooth baritone you’d expect from a seasoned radio announcer.

Today, Mr. Williams’ face has become familiar to millions, by way of YouTube, network television and countless news stories. He’s been offered jobs, homes and media spotlights.

Behind this modern-day Cinderella story is the man with the camera, Doral Chenoweth, a multimedia producer for the Columbus Dispatch and a noted photographer. This wasn’t Mr. Chenoweth’s first encounter with the homeless—he’s served people in need for years by way of his church, New Life United Methodist Church in downtown Columbus, Ohio.

He recently spoke with Liz Applegate about what he believes are our responsibilities in helping those less fortunate.

In previous interviews you say that you became a member of New Life because of the church’s mission work. Can you tell that story?
The church [New Life UMC] won a Columbus Dispatch community service award and I was assigned to take pictures. It was specifically for their Sunday morning ministry that serves homeless people and others in the community who need a hot breakfast. It had been going on for a few years at that point and served 150 people each Sunday. So it was a normal Dispatch assignment that I had done before.
But at that particular time it struck me how wonderful it was—a very small church, 35 members, with such a big ministry. And I came home and told my wife about it and said that we should go back. It [the breakfast ministry] had the feel of an old-time soup kitchen. It’s in the basement of a building built in 1914 and it was barebones; it wasn’t slick and polished, and I liked that. So we went back the next week, without cameras, just to help and volunteer. That was 14 years ago and we’ve been going back ever since.

Were you raised United Methodist?
I was actually brought up atheist and became a Christian in 1986. My grandmother had taken me to a Methodist church in West Virginia when I was growing up, but I wasn’t looking for a Methodist church to join.

Tell me about some of the international mission work you have done.
We [my wife and I] were very active with Habitat for Humanity in the ’90s. We traveled to many different countries in Africa, building with them as well as locally. It ran a great course, but when we had children we stopped doing international trips. Then we picked [international travel] back up in 2007 with a trip to Kenya to visit some schools that needed some photography to help tell their story. And then in 2010 we went to the Lohada orphanages in Tanzania. We will have a long-standing relationship with them.
We have been to Africa seven times and our children have been twice. [Our children] really clicked with the kids there. They wanted to help out and get involved, and now they have pen pals. They write these long letters with these kids and it’s really great.

Do you see your gift of photography as a way you are living out your faith, and as a ministry?
Yes it is, and we hope that our ministry raises awareness. With awareness comes money and people are able to have a new house, the orphanage receives rice and beans, and the homeless men in Columbus will get to have a hot meal on Sunday mornings.

Is this spirit of mission something that happened once you became a Christian?
I bet it was in my fiber back in the earlier days. My wife says it was. You can’t just turn that on. It goes back further.

I just learned that Mr. Williams will be entering rehab for drug and alcohol abuse. What are your concerns now for him?
I think Mr. Williams has a long road ahead of him. I pray for him a lot and hope he is able to handle all of this fame and the money coming his way. He will have a lot of temptations, and I offer a lot of prayer.

Knowing the media frenzy and the way this video has changed not only Mr. Williams’ life but yours as well, would you do this all over again?
Oh, yes. If it means that one less homeless person is on the streets of Columbus tonight? I would do it all over again. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to see other peoples’ lives change, not just Ted Williams.

Many of us have a negative view of people who are panhandlers, and likely would not have stopped to talk to Ted Williams. How would you respond?
Sometimes you know that your money is going in the right direction, but sometimes you know it’s going to buy a bottle. We are not the ones who have to sleep in that tent, and if that bottle helps that man make it through that one night, we are there for a reason. But I am not just saying you should give all the time. There are times when you just say no. If it doesn’t feel right, then don’t do it. It depends on how you are being led at that particular moment. And this video has changed a lot of peoples’ views of panhandlers.

I’ve always lived by going back to the Matthew verse to help everybody. You never know who is going to be Christ, and you need to treat your fellow man with respect and give them a hand up whenever you can. I think I’ve always felt led to the more radical teachings of Jesus about “radical hospitality,” the buzzword in the ’90s that always appealed to me. I just believe in getting out there and doing things hands on. It’s the right thing to do.

Published originally at The United Methodist Reporter
January 28, 2011